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Weekly Blog: In praise of friendship

Community Manager
Community Manager
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Research shows that the amount of time we spend with friends declines steadily from the age of 40, as the time we spend alone climbs.

Now, plenty of people are perfectly comfortable in their own company and researchers are quick to point out that being alone doesn’t necessarily equate to loneliness.

But equally, there is compelling research to suggest that our degree of social connection is a powerful determinant of health, and it’s the quality not the quantity of your close personal relationships that matters.

I mention all this because I think social connection is a largely overlooked element of the optimal conditions for someone living with a cancer diagnosis. Perversely, a cancer diagnosis can lead to a sense of isolation, both because the person with cancer might lose some social confidence and tend toward avoidant behaviour, and because others might not know how to act or what to say around them.

What I feel like I’ve learnt over the past eight years is, just as exercise is the best antidote to Cancer Related Fatigue, putting yourself out into the world and overcoming the tendency to go into a bunker is the best therapy for social isolation. Easier said than done, I know, but in my experience it’s well worth pushing through the discomfort.

“When people or groups have relationships that create a sense of belonging and being cared for, valued, and supported, that’s called social connectedness,” a recent article from the Centers for Chronic Disease Control and Prevention states: “When people are socially connected, they are more likely to make healthy choices and better able to cope with stress, trauma, adversity, anxiety, and depression. That’s why social connectedness is one of the key social determinants of health.”  

I’ve been thinking about all this because friendships have really helped me through my cancer diagnosis. And since my marriage broke up, I’ve had to really re-invest in those friendships as invaluable sources of social support. How do you invest in friendships? For me, it’s meant letting close mates know they are important to me and re-establishing a reciprocal readiness to be there for each other when times are tough.

One close mate, Stevie, a counsellor by trade (which is always handy) let me know that he was comfortable sitting with me no matter what my emotional state and nominated a distress signal (the dancing man emoji, oddly enough) should I ever be in urgent need of support. If you have a handful of friends like that, even if you have one, treasure them. And one of the silver linings of the separation was rediscovering and more fully embracing a range of close friendships.

Reaching out is often one of the last things you feel like doing when you are in a dark place, so it’s important to reach out and make it known the kind of support you’d like from close friends when you are feeling good. This will make it easier to ask for support when that feels really daunting.

The other thing Stevie taught me was the traffic light system, letting those close to you know how you are faring via the colours of the traffic lights. Green means all good. Yellow indicates you are feeling a bit wobbly. Red is when you close to or in crisis. It’s a simple shorthand to let the people around you know what you might need and how you’re tracking at any given time. You can even indicate what you might like from them in each colour zone – Green, let’s go out and have a good time and fill our cups. Yellow, call over and take me for a walk on the beach. Red, just come sit, make a cup of tea and hold space or listen.

Generally, I think blokes need to learn this sort of behaviour as it doesn’t come so naturally. In my experience, woman after often a lot better at this stuff and we can learn from their example. Building regular social gatherings into your schedule (the ladies seem to love book clubs, though I sometimes suspect it’s more about the wine and cheese than literary appreciation). So, whether it’s a regular arrangement to watch footy, go to the gym, share a meal, whatever floats your boat, don’t be shy about being proactive asking for what you need.

I recall hearing Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan talking about his wonderful novel Mayflies on the radio and how it centred close male friendships. He made the case that romantic love gets all the headlines, movie scripts, pop songs, but enduring friendships are one of the most precious things we have. “Good friends are like guardians of your potential,” he said.

And I’ve never forgotten it.        


About the Author


Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.

Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but eight years on, at 58, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting the Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.

Help is Available

Prostate Cancer Specialist Telenursing Service

If your life has been impacted by prostate cancer, our Specialist Telenursing Service is available to help. If you would like to reach out to the PCFA Prostate Cancer Specialist Telenurse Service for any questions you have about your prostate cancer experience, please phone 1800 22 00 99 Monday - Friday 9am - 5pm, Wednesday 10am-8pm (AEDT).

Prostate Cancer Support Groups

PCFA is proud to have a national network of affiliated support groups in each state and territory of Australia consisting of men and women who have a passion for assisting others who encounter prostate cancer. This network is made up of over 170 affiliated groups who meet locally to provide one-to-one support, giving a vision of life and hope after treatment. Call us on 1800 22 00 99 to find your local group.

MatesCONNECT Telephone-based peer support

MatesCONNECT is a telephone-based peer support program for men affected by prostate cancer. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, our MatesCONNECT service can connect you to a trained volunteer who understands what you’re going through. All of our volunteers have been through prostate cancer. Simply call us on 1800 22 00 99 to be connected with a volunteer.

Newly diagnosed? or need to find more information? Access the PCFA resources here.

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